Food & Drink

The Surprising Story Behind a Beloved Kentucky Candy

How a marshmallow dipped in caramel involves a Polish actress, a fire, and camaraderie between two kitchens

In Louisville, locals are plenty proud of the city’s modjeska (pronounced moh-JESS-kuh) confections, pillowy marshmallows encased in rich caramel. But long before Muth’s Candies on Market Street sold them individually and by sets of seven—or started dipping them in chocolate—a Polish actress visiting Kentucky kickstarted their legacy. 

Helena Modjeska in 1899.

In 1883, the famed Polish actress Helena Modjeska visited Louisville to perform in the American debut of the play A Doll’s House at Macauley’s Theatre. (The actress had previously visited Louisville for the 1877 Kentucky Derby, where she allegedly became a mint julep enthusiast.) Anton Busath, a French confectioner who ran a downtown candy shop, attended the play and was so blown away by Modjeska’s performance in the lead role that he wrote to the actress to ask if he could name his newly created confection—a marshmallow dipped in caramel—after her. The star graciously sent Busath her approval and her autographed portrait, which hung in his store for decades. 

The counter at Muth’s Candy Store in the 1940s.

Generations later, the modjeska’s story took another twist. In November 1947, Busath’s Candy Store suffered a devastating fire that destroyed its kitchen. In a moment of competitors becoming friends, the Busath family asked fellow candymaker Rudy Muth if they could use his space, which had opened in 1921, to finish out the Christmas season. When the Busaths decided not to reopen their store after the fire, they gave Rudy the family’s official modjeska recipe as a thank you for sharing his kitchen.

Today, Muth’s candymakers prepare the caramel in the same copper vats they’ve used for nearly a century, and the shop looks frozen in time with its original countertops and display cases featuring antique candy boxes, photographs, and old ledgers. Sarah Blazin, a fourth generation Muth who helps run the store today, calls the number of modjeskas sold each year “absolutely astronomical.” (Other Louisville shops sell modjeskas, but Muth’s lays claim to the original recipe, which is particularly rich in butter and cream.)

One more piece of the story lives on at Louisville’s Filson Historical Society. There, Helena Modjeska’s original autographed portrait, which miraculously survived the fire that destroyed Busath’s Candy Store in 1947, still hangs to this day, remaining as much a part of Louisville as the beloved candy she inspired.